American Mythology

A few weeks ago Moody Bible Institute found themselves at the center of a twitter storm for an all too familiar reason: a white person denying the existence of white privilege. To find more on this story, you can read the background Here in the Chicago Trib or search the hashtag #MBIprivilege.

The story essentially died down over the last few weeks, but the same person, a professor, dug his heels in deeper. Last week he penned a letter to the editor in The Moody Standard defending his remarks (and apologizing for his tone) in five points which can be found here

Truth be told, there is nothing surprising in the remarks. These are all familiar reasonings for resistance to the term white privilege. Some of them Peggy McIntosh had herself just before she popularized the term! The reason I turn to his comments here is because it is quite rare that someone takes the time to write out the reasoning where I can take a screenshot. Usually these are statements made in workshops and classes, in hallways and forums where the best I can do is paraphrase the exchange. But since we have been provided the ability to screenshot the argument, I figure we should use it. There is one particular point that really makes my skin crawl in how commonly its used and how problematic it is. Please note it is not my desire to have a conversation about the professor. I dont know him at all. I want only to use his comments to showcase how American Mythology is used to replace history when discussing the devastating effect of racism in this country. Following is the point I wish to address:

I was going to take this apart piece by piece but I got annoyed and couldn't do it. So I will just make 3 points to all of this and go enjoy the beautiful weather! 

1. God didn't have anything to do with the historic racial injustice that afforded white Americans their economic privileges. God didn't sanction slavery. God didn't sanction black codes. God didn't sanction jim crow. Trying to spiritualize the level of injustice that is America's history simply because you enjoy the results of that injustice is gross.

2. No ones American story is created in a vacuum. Whenever arguments like this are made, do you notice how insular the story is? Its as if there was nothing happening in American history other than the life of the grandparent toiling away to make ends meet. As if all of America was a neutral "playing field" if you will, white folks just happened (by the grace of God, of course) to do well in life. The assumption is: as long as your ancestor wasnt a slave owner, then racial injustice couldn't be a part of your family's story. Incorrect. Lets revisit history, shall we? 

My ancestors have worked hard for centuries in this country, but were not paid for it. While white folks (as defined at that time) could apply for jobs anywhere, mine had to avoid signs that read "coloreds need not apply". While white people were earning a living wage, mine were being paid far, far less with absolutely no legal recourse. My grandparents would have loved to finish college. Some of them did graduate from universities- all of them with the word "colored" in the title. While white people were purchasing homes, my grandparents were navigating legal discriminations that would not offer them loans, would change the terms of contracts on a whim, only allowed them to live in certain neighborhoods through redlining and housing covenants, and refused to grant them homeownership altogether. My great grandmother who lived in a West Virginia mining town was evicted from her home every few years because of her gorgeous gardens and hard work to make the house livable. As soon as she did, she would find herself evicted, having to start all over, with no legal recourse and no equity or wealth gained from the home. My ancestors would have loved to pass down the amount of wealth they generated, but instead it lined the pockets of the white people for whom they worked, paid a mortgage/contract and really attempted to avoid whenever possible. The wealth that should have profited black families instead became part of the "stewardship" of white families- of business owners and real estate agents, of government workers and factory owners, of landlords and bankers, of lawyers and home owners, of court officials and many others who followed the "rules" of America's policy of discrimination in every area of American life. You're welcome, by the way.  

So forgive me for not being impressed by the "morality" and "hard work" of any ancestral tales that ignore the systemic injustice that is America's history. Forgive me for not being impressed by families who didn't own slaves. Forgive me for not being impressed by family stories overflowing with privileges not given to my family and millions of other families of color. You can celebrate the ease with which your family earned its wealth in the midst of legal discriminations of all kinds against people of color, but please don't tell me that God celebrates with you. 

3. I am so sick of these underhanded insinuations that black people (or people of color) just need to work harder, that we are lazy, unethical and selfish. That your families are the hard working ones, that your families are the ethical ones, that your families are the self-sacrificing ones. There is nothing moral about slavery. There is nothing moral about jim crow. There is nothing moral about legalized discrimination. There is nothing moral about the centuries old, two-tiered system America created for whites and for others. There is nothing moral about how white privilege came to be. This moral high ground is sinking sand. There is nothing "right" about it. 

It is an American myth that racial injustice ended with slavery. It is an American myth that the fruits of slavery died on the vine of abolition. It is an American myth that Jim Crow was nothing more than some really mean signs on parks and swimming pools, water fountains and bathrooms. It is an American myth that there are families who were somehow untouched by Americas system of inequality. It is an American myth that God has only blessed "hardworking" folks and that people of color would be wealthy, too, if we just learned the value of hard work. It is an American myth that the wealth incurred in the midst of tremendous injustice is simply a blessing from God.

And this is the brilliance of a racialized society that for hundreds of years has benefited whites at the expense of people of color: you can still tell yourself that you are innocent, untouched and excused from the harm, the trauma, and the gains of racism.

For those who wish to go beyond understanding jim crow in particular as more than random signs on buildings, please begin with Ta-Nehisi Coates's article HERE. You might hate the title. Thats okay. Read it anyway. Its longer than a blog post, but shorter than committing to a book. I re-read it yesterday and it took me about an hour with a couple interruptions. Its an introduction to understanding just how thorough systemic discrimination in an era of jim crow truly was. After you finish reading it, check out his bibliography for more in depth books.

This is important. We must get beyond the idea that racial injustice ended with slavery. Its simply not so. And to pretend that there aren't vast wealth differences as a result of this legalized unequal system that lasted more than 300 years is, quite frankly, dishonest. So lets commit to truly understanding the larger American story in which our family stories sit, especially if we are going to talk about God's view on the matter.